Breaking the Ice in Online/Blended Classes

The following blog post developed out of a larger research project that explored best practices for building a sense of community within online/blended classrooms. That study was supported by a Faculty Fellowship from CI’s Teaching & Learning Innovations Group, and was conducted by Kellie Prather (undergraduate student at CI), Brandon Burns (undergraduate student at CI), Maia Smidt (undergraduate student at CI), and J. Jacob Jenkins (Assistant Professor of Communication at CI).
This post is part two of three part series.

Building community within online/blended classrooms can be a daunting task. Online and blended classrooms, after all, don’t have the convenience of students being herded into a single space, where they are more or less confined for 3 hours each week, forced to interact with one another.

So how does an online or blended professor take the first steps toward community building, you ask?

The answer is simple: Ice-breakers!

When used thoughtfully, ice-breakers can go a long way toward building a sense of classroom community. Simply responding to an ice-breaker question, however, does not in-and-of-itself create community. Rather, there are there several tips to keep in mind when attempting to break the ice within your own online/blended classroom.

Fostering Student Interaction

The first tip for a successful ice-breaker is that it must foster interaction.

Students should always be encouraged to engage with each other’s responses by posting their own replies, by commenting on other students’ replies, and so on. Only through such sustained interaction will students move beyond superficial conversation by talking about their personal lives and providing interesting trivia about themselves. And only then will they discover the unexpected similarities they have with another (a.k.a., break the ice).

Posing Unexpected Questions

A second tip for successfully breaking the ice in online/blended classrooms is to pose unexpected questions. One particular professor in CI’s Communication program, for instance, often uses Chuck Klosterman’s Hypertheticals in his online/blended courses. Instead of standard questions we’ve all heard and answered before, Klosterman’s Hypertheticals commonly catch students by surprise with their off-the-wall situations. A few examples include:

Hyperthetical #12:

You are given a choice between two rewards. The first reward is to be twice as intelligent as you are right now – you will be able to read twice as fast and remember twice as much, the size of your vocabulary will double, and you’ll be able to solve intellectual problems with twice your current aptitude. The second reward is that you will never again feel sick (even when you are) and you can always be whatever weight you want, regardless of what you eat how little you exercise.  Which reward do you choose and why?

Hyperthetical #32:

Imagine the following three sensations:

  1. Chewing and swallowing the first mouthful of your favorite food after starving yourself for 48 straight hours. The food is prepared perfectly.
  2. Lying down on an especially cozy bed after 12 hours of nonstop physical labor on a cold day.
  3. The first moment of urinary release after having held a completely full bladder for more than 90 minutes.

For the rest of your life, you will feel one of these three ways, all the time. This is how you will always feel, 24 hours a day (you won’t be doing the specific activity, but you’ll always be experiencing the act’s accompanying euphoria). Which one do you choose and why?

Hyperthetical #47:

You meet a wizard in downtown Chicago. The wizard says you must make a choice; you must choose one of two options. For the first option, the wizard can instantly make you 20% more intelligent than you currently are. With this option, however, you will instantly be perceived by the world as being 20% less intelligent than you currently are. For the second option, the wizard can instantly make you 20% less intelligent than you currently are. With this option, however, you will instantly be perceived by the world as being 20% more intelligent than you currently are. Which option do you choose and why?

The conversations that emerge from prompts like these are always more interesting and more memorable than standard ice-breakers like, “What did you do this summer?” or “Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?”

Breaking Your Own Ice

Finally, ice-breakers can also help create a sense of community between the professor and the student. For example, a professor in CI’s Education program commonly asks her students to describe their feelings about the course, but there’s a catch: The students can only use one word.

By limiting their answer to a single word, this professor is able to quickly scan through the online responses, most of which she claims are positive. If there is a response that suggests the student is nervous about the course or uncomfortable with the material, however, this raises a flag for her and she knows to check back with this student later to ensure her/his success in the class. By reaching out to students in this way, it not only helps to break the ice, but also helps to build a personal bond between the student and professor.


Building a sense of community does not happen overnight, and it does not happen after a single round of ice-breakers. Yet using ice-breakers is a great way to lay the building blocks of community in online/blended classrooms.

So in an online setting, remember to use ice-breakers.

When you do, make sure they foster interaction.  And make sure they’re interesting.

If you do, you never know: You might even break some of ice around yourself in the process.

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